Muse or menace, magpie plays central role in NAIT instructor's poetry collection, "Insomnia Bird"
Kelly Shepherd didn’t set out to write a book of poems all about Edmonton. But when the NAIT English instructor gave his editor an early version of his collection – the follow-up to 2016’s Shift, which was longlisted for the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award – he realized the common thread was already there.
There were poems about riding the bus in Edmonton. There were poems about working construction in Edmonton. Poems about the river valley, the city’s connection to the energy industry, and even playful references to specific civic arguments of the day (see the poem, “Don’t Let McDonald’s Into Heritage Days”).
Another poem, “Purple City: Afterimages," contains so much local imagery and folklore – from Accidental Beach to the Flaman treadmill guy by the international airport, “who runs, runs, runs but never makes it out” – that it feels like a key that might unlock the entire city. Just like that, Insomnia Bird: Edmonton Poems was born.
“Purple City: Afterimages" contains so much local imagery and folklore that it feels like a key that might unlock the entire city.
But the collection, released on Oct. 1 by Thistledown Press, goes well past mere boosterism. On the contrary, Shepherd’s poems are a mixture of first-person reflections, kinetic portraits of the city in motion, and collages of found text from street signs and obtuse government documents alike. At the same time, he reminds us of all that the city’s growth has covered up: the longstanding Indigenous history in the area, for instance, as well as features of the natural landscape.
Shepherd was inspired by a concept called “shadow geography,” which is concerned with all of the things that a given place hides or draws your attention away from. But those repressed features don’t actually disappear, he says. They just come out in other, unexpected ways. That's something Insomnia Bird brings to light for Edmonton.
“What do you not want people to see about your city?” Shepherd asks. “What is not going to appear in the official tourist literature?”
“Unofficial mascot” of Edmonton?
At the heart of the collection is the figure of the magpie, which has become an iconic symbol of the city even as it divides residents into two camps: those who love it, and those who can’t stand it.
To Shepherd, the magpie is the “unofficial mascot” of Edmonton, as well as its muse – not despite that divisiveness, but because of it. He likes that it contains both black and white, like a yin-yang, made whole by combining opposing forces. “There’s a tension built right into this bird,” Shepherd says.
“There’s a tension built right into this bird.”
Insomnia Bird also draws on the magpie’s surprisingly large role in global folklore. “They’re thieves, or gossips, or a symbol of good luck, or a symbol of bad luck, depending on where you are,” Shepherd says.
“I really like them, in case that didn’t come through,” he adds with a laugh. “I’m a big fan.”
Embracing a place
Writing about one specific place can be a scary proposition. Sure, the locals may appreciate it, but will anyone outside of that place care? What if they don’t get the references?
Shepherd knows that this question is even more pronounced when you’re writing about a city like Edmonton, which is still a minor player in the media landscape. “Much of our culture is imported, right?” he says. “We’re more familiar, in a way, with New York City, and London, and Paris. It’s always elsewhere. It’s usually not Canadian, and certainly not in our own neighbourhoods.”
But even if writing about Edmonton wasn’t always the plan, as soon as Shepherd decided he was going down that path for Insomnia Bird, he embraced it.
“I thought it would compromise it if I tried to make Edmonton abstracted, and somehow representative of every city,” he says. “I thought that would ruin it, almost. So I went the other way.”
Birds of a feather, sleepless together
The collection’s title, Insomnia Bird, has multiple meanings for Shepherd.
He has insomnia himself, and often writes at odd hours. But it’s also based on a series of studies on birds that live in urban centres. Researchers, he says, have found that some urban birds are actually kept up at night because of the light pollution generated by cities.